Whenever a patient asks “Is swimming good for back pain?”, my answer is always a resounding “absolutely!” Not only does it have a positive effect on your overall health, but also it’s been shown to be one of the most useful exercise programs for people suffering from lower back pain.
Why is swimming good for lower back pain?
If you’ve been reading our blog, you may already know how important muscle strength is to a healthy back. Some painful conditions can be managed with the right kind of muscle-strengthening exercises—specifically, exercises that will help overcome muscular deficiencies, like muscle spasms and tightness, and those that will increase spine stability. At the same time, it’s important to avoid exercise that puts pressure on the joints, like running or weight lifting.
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Swimming is good for your back for two reasons:
- It provides a way to exercise without putting additional stress on the joints in your spine. Since your buoyancy in the water essentially cancels out the forces of gravity, very little stress is transmitted to your joints. Therefore, swimming is much easier on the joints than many other forms of exercise. For example, if you go walking or running, the impact from that constant, repetitive contact is absorbed in the joints of your spine. If you get on a bicycle, that force is reduced somewhat; but when you get in the water, it completely disappears—there is no axial loading from body weight through your spine, just the forces of your muscles.
- It works a wide range of muscles, including those you don’t normally use. Your back, leg, and core muscles (the ones that attach to the spine that help with spinal and pelvic stabilization) increase spine stability and set the stage for a better-functioning back. Depending on the stroke you’re using, swimmers engage a variety of relevant muscles during a workout—including those in the chest, shoulder, back, and lower limbs. Compared to using an exercise machine that works only one group of muscles, like a leg press, for example, swimming strengthens nearly all the major muscle groups. And it does so in a bilateral way, which means your muscles share the stress of the exercise as you alternate your movement from side to side with every stroke.
Swimming also works muscles that aren’t frequently used. Consider the breaststroke, which involves moving your arms out and then pulling back to the side. The resistance of the water helps strengthen your shoulder muscles, which tend to get less attention in a typical cardiovascular workout, but also play a role in the health of your back.
What should I be doing in the pool?
There are three things you can do in the pool to help minimize your back pain:
- Walk. If walking around in the pool is all you’re able to do, you’ll still reap benefits. The resistance created by chest-high water makes your muscles work harder to move, which means they’re getting a workout. Swinging your arms underwater works even more muscles. You could also try walking backward and sideways to engage different parts of your thigh muscles.
- Water aerobics. Water aerobics gets your heart rate up without much joint stress, which add a cardio component to your muscle strengthening. It also requires movement in various directions, which works a variety of muscles and improves your flexibility.
- Swimming laps. All of the swimming strokes work muscles that are important to spine health, so whatever is most comfortable for you is what you should do. But if you’re not ready to dive into multiple freestyle sets just yet, start with treading water. It’s strenuous—so the muscles in your hips, back, and chest will all get a good workout—but removes any concerns about mastering a particular technique.
Swimming is often recommended as a good exercise for a bad back, but we suggest talking to your doctor before starting any type of new exercise regimen.